Archive for the Ambiguity Category

Invention of Invention

Posted in Ambiguity, KL, Science, sophists, Stengers, Why/how on February 18, 2008 by untimelymediations

(Side note: I agree with Mike’s concern last week about feeling like I need a bit more background for this text.  I had a difficult time grounding it in any sense.  Maybe it’s just me – and I’m not trying to make excuses for my superficial post – but I just feel like I’m scratching the surface with Stengers, and I’m missing something really important.  Are there some specific texts that overview Science and Rhetoric?  I would be interested to read something that would help me ‘get’ this.)

This week’s reading was a bit complicated and confusing for me, so I had to read it through the lens of my favorite, confusing-as-hell addiction: Lost.  Like fans of any given television show, I obsess—completely. I should add that this obsession is not limited merely to ‘water-cooler discussions,’ but I have downloaded the Lost podcasts, read the message boards, and have even read the articles (not surprisingly, there are many scholarly ones out there).  We rabid fans are in search of two things – the why and the how (w/h) of the plot. Before Stengers, these are two qualities for which I did not realize I was searching.  In most other shows, we get the w/h.  We know why Jack Bauer is getting his ass kicked for his country.  We know how and why Dexter Morgan is killing his victims.  But on the island, no one knows either, and we are left to fend for ourselves in weekly battle of he-said/she-said.  And this is why I believe Stengers is so applicable to Lost: as shown in every episode, each character is inventing her/his own, new truth by fictionalizing the self and denying who s/he was before the plane crash.

For Stengers, truth and fiction are inseparable, and ultimately these modes invent

“an antidote to the belief that makes us so formidable, the belief that defines truth and fiction in terms of an opposition, in terms of the power that makes the first destroy the second, a belief older than the invention of the modern sciences, but whose invention constituted a ‘recommencement’” (164-5).

Inventions and interest are two crucial terms for Stengers, and she maintains throughout her text that truths are initially invented fictions.  On the island, and arguably for the Sophists as well, one cannot distinguish between what is real (truth) and simply what is flattery (fiction).  They are not in opposition, but instead become so blurred that they are essentially both creations of each other.  The characters on Lost exemplify this creation, as no one truly knows who the other survivors were before the crash.  All we see are the new identities as created through necessity.  Truth and fiction are therefore inventions in which individual interest is taken. Science, as “performed” in labs, is thus the result of an individual’s interest in “making” an idea come true.  People, then, are more ‘interested’ in interest as opposed to truth since the former is what actually unifies:

“It is precisely because interest, as opposed to ‘truth,’ does not claim the power to create unanimity, but lends itself to proliferation and association with other disparate interests, that it can bring together authors for whom the event poses the problem of history” (Stengers 96).

Finally, Stengers claims that there cannot be “a single historical process that is applicable to the history of philosophy, art, and science, for each of these enterprises is defined by a specific relationship with its own past” (41). Therefore, in terms of truth and fiction, we cannot separate them as they develop, nor with Lost can we watch the show without knowing each of the characters’ pre-island pasts.

Super Response for Super Tuesday

Posted in Ambiguity, Hegel, Isocrates, Jaeger, KL, Marx, rhetoric, sophists on February 4, 2008 by untimelymediations

(Before this post begins, I’ve noticed that my blog apparently has spontaneously combusted—I’ll update the link on the right as soon as I start a new one/the old one un-combusts.)

In writing this response, I fully understand the risk of my sounding slightly morose and vulgar.  Over the weekend I was submerged in funeral planning, although as a good academic, I related the experience of death back to philosophy and rhetoric.  I have been overhearing the same conversations, individuals repeating the same apologies for the loss, the same condolences.  Derek mentioned in his post that the lexicon of the Presidential campaign is rather ambiguous, and so, too, is the lexicon of grief.  In “To Niocles,” Isocrates reinforces the notion (contra Hegel’s small “n” notion) that in speaking and ruling, one should constantly think of the masses, to “take thought for the common people, and do everything to rule them in a way that pleases them” (161).  Listening to friends and family react to death, people are very hesitant to specify anything—they are offering their apologies to comfort the masses in a way that I do not see comforting whatsoever.  (Ya know, all the “I’m so sorry for your loss”-es, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know”-s, and the ever popular “She’s in a better place now”-s.)  But, we are all guilty of this, as we have all been in these situations where rhetoric does not suffice, so we revert to the same, ordinary phrases.  There is nothing we can say that will please the masses (in this situation, those closest to the dead), nothing that will release their pain of loss.  So, while I find Isocrates’ insistence on moderate and blanketed speech troublesome (in the same, ambiguous manner as “American family” and “tyranny” are supposed to ‘mean’ the same thing for everyone), perhaps Isocrates is right.  Since, according to Isocrates, we should not aim to please one group over another perhaps the sameness of condolences appear sufficient when one is in funeral-mode.
So maybe this funeral experience is the perfect example of Sophistry, that everyone coming and going, dropping off food, sharing their memories and condolences represents the “selfish selflessness”—they are doing these things not to make the family feel any better, but that it ultimately makes the giver feel like a better person.  Someone dying of cancer is much different than someone dying in a car accident—the family has known her that death was imminent for sometime now, and her monthly decay was somewhat preparing everyone for this weekend.  However, there are friends (some from whom the family has not heard in more than an decade) stopping by to say hello.  It’s funny because they all seem to say, “we knew she had cancer, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”  These statements lead me to believe that they are not stopping by to comfort the family, but rather that they are simply pretending to care, and hoping that all their lasagna and lunch meat will make the family feel better.  Actually, it seems that one offers such gifts so that there is a personal/selfish return—in effect the giver feels better knowing that s/he has given rather than how the family feels about receiving the gift (here seems to be the perfect space for Derrida, but that’s next week!).

Now, I would like to set aside all the “funeral talk” and focus on Marx and Hegel’s writing on the Greeks, placing particular attention on the individual verses the collective good or gain.  As Jaeger notes of Isocrates’ “Niocles”:

“The better should not be ruled by the worse, nor the wise be governed by the foolish.  In association with others that means that the prince must criticize the bad and vie with the good.  The essential thing is that he who wants to rule over others must apply that principle to himself, and be able to justify his position by his own true superiority to them all” (96).

For the Sophist, being concerned firstly and ultimately with himself is the means to pleasing the masses.  By “applying that principle to himself,” the Sophist can neither be the brunt of criticism, nor can he be the critic, since he is no different from everyone else.  By always thinking primarily of the individual, the Sophist’s best intentions are, in a roundabout way, the masses.

Hegel maintains that the differences between the Platonists/Socratics verses the Sophists lies in the emphasis placed on the individual.  We can see this divide in the following passages:

“The mission of Socrates was to express the beautiful, good, true, and right, as the end aim of the individual, while with the Sophists the content was not present as an ultimate end, so that all this was left to the individual will”

“[For the Sophists], the Notion of the thing as determined in and for itself; for it brings forward external reasons through which right and wrong, utility and harmfulness, are distinguished.  To Plato and Socrates, on the other hand, the main point is that the nature of the conditions should be considered, and that the Notion of the thing in and for itself should become evolved” (366-367).

(Okay, I have to run off again, but I plan to connect the individual aims of Sophistry to the modes of production discussed in The German Ideology.  I will finish this post later, fully understanding the risk of ridicule for having an incomplete post.)

Ambiguity as Rhetorical Strategy: “Virtue” and its Contemporary Correlatives

Posted in Ambiguity, DR, Isocrates on January 28, 2008 by untimelymediations

As with most discourse of this nature, the authors of these texts draw on a particular vocabulary and a specific lexicon in an attempt to develop a more persuasive argument.  Specifically, these texts implore the various connotations associated with the term “virtue,” in order to achieve a certain objective.  Even the terms “knowledge,” “soul,” and “body” take on meanings seemingly divergent from contemporary interpretations.   Although virtue, knowledge, and soul, become a means by which the authors can validate their arguments, for they emphasize a certain textual authority, these texts absence any explanation relating to their definition or use.   

Throughout each text, these terms are invoked at numerous junctions in order to justify a particular action or a specific argument.  Interestingly, these terms don’t just simply assist in the formation of argument.  In many ways, it seems as though these texts rely on these very terms; that they are dependent on this lexicon.  For these texts, alternative word choice will not suffice.  Here, I am not so much interested in simply suggesting a certain textual weakness.  Rather, I am much more interested in the various means by which a similar reliance occurs in more contemporary contexts.   Though there are numerous examples, such as the use of the term “affect” in intellectual circles, a term that is applied to many issues without much consideration for connotation, it seems as though the realm of political debate/speech is a more interesting point of consideration.  Here, as in the texts we are currently reading, ambiguous terms are invoked without much consideration for divergent connotations or interpretations.  In many ways, the term virtue finds its correlative in the use of terms such as “our values” or “legacy” by Barack Obama, McCain’s ever ambiguous reliance on “tyranny,” to invoke a certain fear, and Hillary Clinton’s suggestion of an “American family.”  These terms, and their uses deny a definitive definition, quite simply, because these texts are devoid of any substantial form of explanation.  What are “our values,” and how do they apply to the “American family.”  Though McCain often references the events of 9/11, tyranny remains ill-defined.  Are there still tyrants present?  As often as McCain invokes this term, tyranny seems all invasive.  Is he still referring to a specific group of people, or an opposing government?  Who are these people? 

Though connotation remains ill-defined, it seems that this functions effectively and conveniently, it must be noted, in contemporary contexts.  Ambiguity serves a specific rhetorical function.  Back to the texts…  In Isocrates, the texts seem to suggest that one use the means necessary in order to obtain the intended objective.  Thus, it seems fruitful to consider whether or not ambiguity is a necessary function?  Whether ambiguity insists structure?  For it seems that by invoking a certain structured ambiguity, the author is able to achieve certain feats.

Derek Risse